From THE NEW YORK TIMES
CHRONICLING MEDIEVAL RITUALS IN SAME-SEX UNIONS: WHAT WERE
By PETER STEINFELS
c.1994 N.Y. Times News Service, 6/11/1994
If these words, taken from a manuscript preserved in the Vatican
and dating from the year 1147, were for a bride and bridegroom,
no one would find them startling:
"Send down, most kind Lord, the grace of Thy Holy Spirit
upon these Thy servants, whom Thou hast fond worthy to be united
not by nature but by faith and a holy spirit. Grant unto them
Thy grace to love each other in joy without injury or hatred all
the days of their lives."
That prayer, however, is part of a ritual joining two men in some
kind of a solemn, personal, affectionate relationship, a ritual
that, according to Dr. John Boswell, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor
of History at Yale, "functioned in the past as a "gay
marriage ceremony.' "
Amid the debate about whether Christianity should bless unions
between homosexuals, Boswell contends that it already has.
Scouring collections of medieval manuscripts from Paris to St.
Petersburg, from the Vatican to Mount Athos in Greece and the
monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, he has turned up more
than 60 texts, dating from the 8th to the 16th centuries, of Christian
ceremonies for what has been variously translated as "spiritual
brotherhood," "adoptive brotherhood" or Boswell's
more neutral term, "same-sex union."
The book in which he makes his case, "Same-Sex Unions in
Premodern Europe," is only now being sent to bookstores by
its publisher, Villard Books.
But his thesis has already been made public by Doonesbury. This
week the comic strip's gay character, Mark, informed a fundamentalist
Christian married man whom he had tried to pick up that a Yale
professor had written a book saying that "for 1,000 years
the church sanctioned rituals for homosexual marriages."
The reader who prefers the book to the comic strip version will
discover a picture that is both more fascinating and more puzzling.
There is no question that Boswell has found records of ceremonies
consecrating a pairing of men, ceremonies often marked by similar
prayers and, over time, by standardized symbolic gestures: the
clasping of right hands, the binding of hands with a stole, kisses,
receiving holy communion, a feast following the ceremony.
Some of these ritual actions also marked heterosexual marriages,
but there remained differences in both actions and words between
the two ceremonies.
Boswell's book will certainly provoke a sharp debate about what
these same-sex ceremonies were solemnizing. From the spread of
Christianity through the ancient world to the late Middle Ages,
different Christian cultures stretching from Syria to Ireland
featured a variety of social bonds not even vaguely paralleled
in modern society.
Was this ritual, for example, a form of fraternal adoption, or
something resembling blood brotherhood? Was it a commemoration
of undying friendship or a strictly spiritual bonding? To what
extent, in short, was it the equivalent of heterosexual marriage,
either in the contemporary sense or in medieval ones?
In the book's Introduction and a chapter on the vocabulary of
love and marriage in ancient and medieval times, Boswell opens
the eyes of anyone who thinks it simple for scholars today to
decode terms that arose in very different contexts, when marriages
between men and women - at least at their beginning - were matters
more of family alliance, property and offspring than of romantic
He whittles away at all the alternative translations and interpretations
of these ceremonies that would preclude a romantic and erotic
dimension to the unions being celebrated.
His book is an imposing achievement, with texts in Greek, Latin,
Old Church Slavonic, Hebrew and Arabic. He provides plenty of
material for other scholars to decide for themselves.
Ultimately, however, there is a problem. As Ralph Hexter, a professor
of the classics and comparative literature at the University of
Colorado in Boulder, put it, "We don't know what they did
What they did in bed, however, is a central issue if Boswell's
findings are going to play a part in the debate over recognizing
same-sex unions legally or religiously.
One suspects that his book would get a very different reception
if instead of suggesting that these medieval same-sex unions tacitly
were accommodating homosexual relations, he had argued that they
were meant to be strictly free of any sexual acts, no matter how
profound the emotional attachment of the participants, or whether
that strict chastity was sometimes abandoned behind the screen
of a "spiritual brotherhood."
Boswell is right in warning that moral or visceral objections
to homosexuality may create a tremendous resistance to any interpretations
of these unions as condoning explicitly sexual behavior. It is
also true that the commitments of those who advocate gay rights,
who include Boswell, may create an exceptional readiness to accept
Had those commitments biased Boswell's 1980 book, "Christianity,
Social Tolerance and Homosexuality" (University of Chicago
Press), which maintained that Christianity was not originally
or inherently hostile to homosexuality?
That volume is treated as a definitive text by many people demanding
changes in social and religious attitudes toward homosexuality.
Among scholars, it is hard even to get agreement about how the
book was received in their own ranks.
The mainstream of medievalists and church historians was approving,
said Hexter, a longtime friend of and intellectual collaborator
with Boswell, who is seriously ill and not available to be interviewed.
But James Brundage, a professor of history and law at the University
of Kansas in Lawrence, said the response was "interested
but skeptical, very skeptical."
Brundage, the author of "Law, Sex and Christian Society in
Medieval Europe" (University of Chicago Press), said that
"the mainstream reaction was that he raised some interesting
questions, but hadn't proved his case."
Will the book be examined with the seriousness with which it was
written? Not only do skeptics about Boswell's thesis worry, but
so does Hexter. "There's going to be a flurry of reports,
and people who will never read the book will repeat that it claims
there were gay marriages," he said. "Others will reply,
"Not so," and simply reject the whole argument."